Amy Grant is an iconic Christian entertainer; one who's sold more records than any other Contemporary Christian artist. What gets lost in all the career superlatives, though, is just what a fine songwriter she is. These days, many of the most popular female vocalists don't write their own songs, but even when Grant was at the height of her crossover popularity ("Every Heartbeat" and "Baby Baby"), her name appeared in the composition credits.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts)
Grant has long since outgrown the 'Christian artist' description, and has decidedly earned the singer/songwriter title. Her 2013 album, How Mercy Looks from Here, is clearly imbued with her Christian faith, but contains themes - and a sincere humanity - that will appeal beyond her base of believers.
: You're such a high profile Christian, I imagine there's probably been pressure on you throughout your career to use that platform to get certain messages across, and yet you've really established yourself as a songwriter and as an artist. How did you withstand the pressure to be molded into something that others might have wanted instead of being your own artist and being sort of a unique singer/songwriter?
: Way to go for launching into something light and fluffy. [Laughing] Oh, gosh. Man, all I know to say is that the immediate circle of people around me, my family - which is fairly extensive - my church community, my work community, I feel like the overriding message that I always got from them was "be yourself." And in the context of real relationship, the deeper matters of the heart will have a chance to express themselves.
So that's how I've approached songwriting and live performance, it's how I approach, hopefully, life. And so I guess just all along I was doing the best I could with what occurred to me. It's just the way I was wired.
I would have not ever even thought about this, but the way you framed the question jogged a memory of having been on the Johnny Carson show for the first time. I can't tell from your voice how old you are, but...
: I'm about as old as you are.
: Okay. Johnny Carson was such an amazing interviewer, and I had the pleasure of being on his show a few times. Great eye contact and he was so engaging. He really went with the moment. And of course I had watched him so many times as a kid. So I would just love having the chance to talk to him and be on his show. And afterwards, I remember being somewhere, because of music - maybe I had gone to sing at his church. Someone started asking me why I didn't share the gospel when I had the chance on national television, and I remember just going, you know, "I had a five minute conversation. And I don't know how you were raised, but when you're invited into someone's home or onto their set, you graciously go where the conversation goes."
I so enjoyed that experience and it never occurred to me to be disappointed in whatever ways it played out. I just remember later going, "Hmmm." It just never would have occurred to me to have such an agenda for a five minute conversation. That would put a lot of pressure on every minute of your whole life. Whoo.
And sometimes conversations do get very serious very quickly. But, I haven't thought about in years. Oh, my goodness. Okay. Next question.
Amy Grant's first album in ten years, How Mercy Looks from Here, took on a solemn tone after Amy lost her mother in April of 2011. Before she passed on, Grant recalled her mother advising her to "sing something that matters." Songs on the album, such as the first single, "Don't Try So Hard," address important issues in life and living. With vocal help from another esteemed singer-songwriter, James Taylor, the words to this song face up to our increasing, yet mostly unnecessary need to be always performing, when really – particularly with regard to the faith life – it should be about just being ourselves.
Producer Marshall Altman, who has also worked with Natasha Beddingfield, Matt Nathanson and Brooke Frasier, had many conversations with Grant during the process of creating this album, to make certain that what they created together truly mattered.
: Well, the new album is quite serious, How Mercy Looks from Here
. I read that you were inspired by your mother in a lot of ways when it came to creating the songs for this album. How did you keep it so that it didn't become so serious that it almost seemed like drudgery to create such deep songs?
: Well, first off, I did dedicate the record to my mother. Several of these songs were written long before she passed away. Some of the inspiration for these songs came from conversations or experiences of things that I had witnessed. One song came from the experience that began over 20 years ago, the song "Better Not to Know." So maybe the reason I attribute the direction of this song to my mother is because of all the songs that I have written or been a part of, it felt like a dozen or so of the songs came together in such an honest but life-affirming way. I'd like to say we had a very organized plan, but I'm way too haphazard to say that.
We made this record the same way I make a pot of soup at my house. I love to cook, and what I love most is what I call living off the land, and that's digging in the refrigerator, digging in the freezer, looking in the pantry, and going, "Oh, yeah, I forgot about that," and just throwing, throwing, throwing and seasoning. And it wasn't until the last couple of months of a long year of work that was enjoyable every single day that Marshall [Altman] and I looked at each other and said, "This is coming together in a way that's very special." And it is a lot deeper in some ways than he and I realized. But it felt so joyful to us in a clumsy way. In the same way that when you go to the funeral of someone who has lived a very full life and you hear people talk about it. I don't know about you, but I come out of a funeral like that breathing more deeply, going, Life is such a gift, and I feel re-energized to live my life more fully.
: I know what you mean, because I've had both experiences at funerals. I've had those where I feel bad that this person may not have lived as fully as they could have. But then, of course, I've had others where I felt like, this was not a bad thing. It was nice to really remember them as they were.
: So it can go both ways.
: Yeah. It really can. And I feel like addressing some of the more serious things that we all have the opportunity to think about, but we live in a world of such distraction. We don't allow ourselves the opportunity to really contemplate some of the more difficult things, and the crazy flip side of contemplating the hard things is that that very contemplation brings value and joy. It's crazy how that works. Anyway.
: This is for Songfacts, where people go to find out information about particular songs. I hope you don't mind if we talk about a few of your more popular songs.
: Yeah, great.
: One song I didn't even realize that you were a co writer on was "The Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)." I wonder if you could take me back to maybe what inspired you when you wrote that song.
: I would love to take you back. "Breath of Heaven" was originally a song written by Chris Eaton. He has a stellar voice. He's been a good friend of mine for years, decades, matter of fact. And this was, let me see what year this was 1992. I was touring and I think Chris was in the band at that time. We were touring a record called Heart in Motion
, with a lot of just fun songs, "Every Heartbeat," "Baby, Baby." And I am remembering Chris Eaton was part of that band. We've toured together several times through the years.
Well, during the course of that tour I was writing and collecting songs for a Christmas record, and I was going to end the tour and go straight into the studio and record. I had heard Chris' song "Breath of Heaven." It had nothing to do with Mary or anything about Christmas. And I just asked him, "Would you let me reframe that chorus, would you let me rewrite the lyric?" So there are different versions of the song. Just from a copyright standpoint, if the name is slightly changed, a song can have two copyrights. And so the song split is different. You know, on one hand that might have been so brash had I not known Chris. But his song, "Breath of Heaven," which painted a lot of nature pictures, I only heard it a couple of times. But I saw that chorus as being universal, but also it could be so specific in light of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
So he said, "Absolutely," and I rewrote the verses and he wrote the chorus. It became "Breath of Heaven, Mary's Song." And I guess the fun of being a writer is never being finished with something. Always tweaking. I have songs that I've recorded that I still continue changing the lyrics. And so I sort of play the latest version.
: My editor wanted me to ask you this. Your hit, "Baby, Baby," was inspired by your daughter, who's grown up now.
: 23, yes.
: What does she think of the song?
: I think she just says, "This is the song inspired by me." You know what, Dan, I have not ever really asked my children, "What do you think about this song?" When they were younger, they traveled with me on the bus. I mean, as they got older, I had to take a tutor until they were old enough to not want to travel as much as I did. But I didn't ever force my children to have any kind of emotional attachment to the music I made, because I knew that they would find the music that they loved, and I didn't ever want them to feel pressured. I jokingly have said, "Oh, I'm so glad I heard 'Baby, Baby' in an elevator the other day, because it's helping defray the cost of your college education." [Laughing] But it's just like, "Well, that's what Mom does."
Depending on the child and depending on what stage in life, there were times that it worked out better for them to distance themselves from my career, because they were just learning to be who they are. And sometimes people can have an out of balance response to a child or a young adult because they feel an attachment to something their parent has done. I just worked very hard to not ever make my kids feel like an extension of anything I had done.
: That's very wise.
: I was a guest on a cruise one time, and my son went. He was in his early 20s, had just broken up with his girlfriend. And a couple of really talkative music fans came up to me and they said, "We're just trying to figure out how to approach your son." And I said, "Would you like to know what I feel pretty certain he would say?" And they said, "Yes." And I said, "You really want to do him a favor, I would leave him alone." I said, "He came here to just get away." And they went, "Okay." So it would just feel weird to me to say to my child, "What did you think about that?"
Amy's first husband, Gary Chapman, is also a singer-songwriter and Christian artist. They married in 1982 and divorced in 1999. They had three children together: Matthew Chapman, Millie Chapman (the inspiration for "Baby Baby") and Sarah Chapman. In 2000, Grant married the country singer Vince Gill. Together, they had one daughter, Corinna Gill.
: What have you learned from Vince Gill about songwriting?
: I have learned so much from Vince. We've written together some, but I feel like the role that we cherish in each other is having a musical sounding board that we trust. Vince and I clearly enjoy doing different kinds of music. I played parts of this new record for him when it was just in the early stages, especially the things that leaned more pop where he was saying, "You know, I am so not wired to do this kind of music."
But I love having him play on something. I love having him sing. And a lot of times, if he's working on a song or if I'm working on a song, we'll say, "What's your feeling about this? Do you feel like I'm really communicating it?" Maybe that will morph into doing more things specifically together, but right now it's just so great to have a trusted confidante. That's more how we've interacted musically up to this point.
May 15, 2013. Get more at amygrant.com.